Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Friday, September 28, 2007

Blogging among US Law Firms

My thanks to Noric Dilanchian (Dilanchian Lawyers & Consultants, Sydney) for drawing my attention to a useful update on the extent of blogging by lawyers at large US law firms: State of the AmLaw 200 Blogosphere, August 2007.

The AMLaw list is a 20 plus year list of the 200 biggest law firms in the US. The list is a little below 200 now because of recent mergers.

The author of the piece runs a blog technology platform, Lexblog. Main conclusions.

Of the firms on the 2006 AMLaw list, 39 firms were blogging.

From those firms, the author found a total of 74 blogs. 56 of these blogs were firm branded (meaning they had the firm's logo prominently displayed on the page). 18 were not branded, indicating that the lawyer was operating their blog independently of or at a distance from their firm. Of the 74 blogs, 33 belonged to LexBlog clients.

As Noric said in his email to me, the variety of legal areas or topics evident in the blog names is remarkable. In his words: I'll call it "variety of the crowds" and note it reflects the expanding universe of law today.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Designing a simple performance appraisal system - sample policy statement

This post in the series sets out a sample boiler plate policy statement designed for immediate use in a professional services environment.


This paper sets out the approach to performance appraisal.


Service to the client is central to our work. To this end, the firm undertakes to provide a supportive working environment and to assist the individual staff member to enhance his/her skills. In return, the firm expects individual staff members to be prepared to learn and to seek to improve performance


Consistent with the firm’s employment philosophy, the objectives of performance appraisal are to improve individual performance and job satisfaction. To this end, performance appraisal needs to be a structured process during which the individual and firm jointly:

  • assess performance during the previous period against the objectives set for the job, identifying achievements together with any significant shortcomings
  • identify any problems that might be hindering the individual in achieving improved job performance or satisfaction
  • review future objectives
  • agree any actions required to improve performance or job satisfaction.

Under this approach, each performance review provides a base for subsequent performance reviews.


Effective performance appraisal is based on a number of key principles:

  • improvement focused: performance improvement is central to the process
  • non-disciplinary: performance appraisal is not concerned with discipline or disciplinary approaches
  • fairness: the approach must be seen to be fair by all those involved
  • transparency: the approach needs to be open and well understood. There should be no hidden agendas
  • joint: the appraisal is a cooperative review not just of the individual, but also of the firm and its systems as they affect work
  • needs based: the review has to take into account the needs of both individual and firm
  • realism: the review needs to be based on realistic expectations on both sides
  • non-threatening: a structured review process can be a frightening experience for both the staff member and his/her supervisor. It has been known to make staff physically sick in the period immediately prior to the review. To minimise this, it needs to be carried out in a cooperative non-threatening fashion
  • delivery: both firm and individual must be prepared to deliver on any commitments made during the performance review.


While there is a relationship, the performance appraisal process should not be confused with pay reviews.

Performance appraisal seeks to improve performance and involves very different issues from those relating to pay. In the majority of cases pay issues should not be dealt with during the performance review. Inclusion of pay reviews within performance reviews nearly always twists the focus away from performance improvement.


The first appraisal should be carried out three months after appointment. Thereafter appraisals can be carried out at three or six monthly intervals.


Note: this section will need modification depending upon firm structure. Partner reviews involve different issues and are not fully covered here. With senior staff or partners, there are sometimes advantages in using an external facilitator.

The appraisal team depends upon reporting lines.

The partners should carry out appraisal of the CEO/Practice Manager/Office Manager.

A team of two consisting of the direct supervisor plus another nominee (Office Manager, partner, HR person etc) should carry out other staff appraisal.


Appraisals at all levels should follow a common format.

Prior to the appraisal, the team should meet to discuss the issues involved and to review previous appraisal.

The review should start with a review of the position itself. Firm operations change continuously. There is not a position in the firm that is exactly the same as it was six months ago. Experience has also demonstrated that even the most experienced manager does not in fact know all the features and nuances of the positions reporting to him/her.

It is therefore very important to establish the changing parameters of the job. What are the key features of the position, where are the main work pressures, how has the job changed, what changes might be expected in the future?

The person being appraised should then be asked to discuss his/her own performance. What do they like/not like about the job? What have they done well, what might be improved? What problems do they face in improving performance? What might be done to improve job satisfaction? Where do they see themselves going next?

Discussion can then turn to a discussion of any performance issues identified by the team that have not already been covered. In this context, while self-awareness varies, most people have some idea of their own performance strengths and weaknesses. It is much easier to deal with performance issues that people have identified themselves. A free flowing discussion will generally allow issues to be identified and dealt with in a non-threatening way.

The last part of the discussion should focus on things that might be done to improve performance. Outcomes here can be quite wide-ranging and might include new training, job redesign, improved supervision and priority changes.

The results of the appraisal should be written up by the chair, cleared with the person being appraised and then signed by all parties. Where the person being appraised disagrees with any aspect of the appraisal, then this should be formally recorded.

The results of the appraisal then provide a benchmark for subsequent appraisals.

A suggested form for recording appraisal results is attached.


Date of Appraisal:
Appraisal Team:
Date of Previous Appraisal:

Agreed Actions:

Insert full meeting details here

Endorsed as an accurate record of discussions:

Appraiser Name Appraiser Name
Position Position

___________________ _________________

Appraisee Name


Previous post. Next post.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Designing a simple performance appraisal system - introduction

Almost twelve months ago, I set out the principles that I thought were important in the design of a good performance appraisal system.

While I have seen very few really good performance appraisal systems, to my mind the development of a simple, effective, performance appraisal system that increases in value with time is not hard.

In this context, I thought that it might be helpful to at least some readers if I provided a working example of a system that I know can work. I trialled it originally in an organisation while I was CEO and since then have used it in client work.

The key points about it are that it is simple, focuses on performance improvement and is designed to help staff and managers do their ordinary jobs.

To keep things really simple, I am breaking this series into four posts including my original post:

  1. My first post, Designing a Good Performance Appraisal System, sets out basic principles.
  2. This post introduces the series.
  3. The third post, Designing a simple performance appraisal system - sample policy statement, sets out a simple policy statement describing the system and is intended for direct use.
  4. The final post, Designing a simple performance appraisal system - implementation issues, looks at some of the practical problems that can arise in implementing the system.

I would be happy to answer any questions that you might have.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Looking Up - regaining a sense of perspective

Photo: Gordon Smith, Looking Up

It has been a little while since I carried a photo on this blog.

This photo from my favourite photo blog reminds me that sometimes we need to take our eyes and focus from our immediate concerns and look up at the world around us.

As a child, I used to lie on the ground to look up at the sky through the trees. It's the same world, but from a very different perspective.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Personal musings - cross-fertilisation within the professions

We all write through a prism set by our experience. I certainly do.

I was reflecting on this recently, reflections triggered by the need to update my CV. Looking back, I can see how my writing has changed over time as my work focus has changed.

This blog has quite a strong focus on the legal profession. Yet I did not complete my first assignment in the legal sector until 2001.

I began my professional career as an Australian Government public servant, working as a professional economist and policy adviser. That was one perspective.

Then I moved to the private sector to develop a practice providing consulting, training and information services with a special focus on the electronics, aerospace and information industries. A second perspective.

After a period as an independent consultant, I spent two years as CEO of a specialist medical college responsible, among other things, for the training of eye care specialists in Australia and New Zealand. A third perspective.

Then I ran a network of independent professional services firms. As part of this, I resumed my role as a strategic consultant with a special focus on the professional services arena. A fourth perspective.

Each area that I have worked in has had its own unique focus. This has affected my own writing and thinking in terms of topic and approach. Yet, looking back, the thing that stands out is the commonalities between areas.

Yes, there are often profound differences. The team and project based focus that you find in some areas is very different from, say, the individuality of practice in law or medicine. Despite this, there are still enormous commonalities.

In theory, this combination of common and different should provide a powerful base for cross-fertilisation. In practice, this is rarely achieved because of the powerful silo effects created by professional divides.

I am still struggling at a professional level to find the best way to overcome this. Sometimes I think that I am making progress, at other times I think that I am as far away from success as ever.

Despite these problems, I still think that the effort is worthwhile.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

It takes more than money to make the world go round

In an earlier post on performance pay I spoke of the distortions that could arise with performance pay systems. I suggested that money itself was not a good motivator, that a focus on money could introduce sometimes unexpected behavioural distortions.

Interesting article by Ross Gittins in the Sydney Morning Herald (10 September 2007) making the same point in a different way.

Ross spoke of the pre-school that had a problem with parents arriving late to pick up their kids, forcing staff to pay late. The school introduced a charge for late parents.

The school thought of it as a fine, a way of encouraging parents to be on time. In fact, the problem got worse because parents thought of it as a fee in return for being late.

As Ross said, introducing a monetary payment changed what had been a moral issue – doing the right thing by day care workers – into a commercial transaction. People no longer felt guilty about arriving late because they were paying for the privilege.

His core conclusion was that where intrinsic motivation is important, introducing monetary rewards can crowd out that intrinsic motivation, making things worse rather than better.

This is a precise statement of one the problems that can arise with performance based pay. Exactly the same problem can arise with performance agreements.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Engineering, globalisation and the obsession with professionalisation

Very interesting post by Cam on Club Troppo, Engineering in Economic Globalisation. I will not repeat the post in detail - I commend it to you - but instead want to pick to one point. Cam wrote:

This final paragraph suggests that American engineers are being over-educated for what the market desires. I believe that is the case in Australian Universities as well. Graduates leave with highly specialised degrees which are over-educated for the labor market. Most engineering degrees could be two years in length and the individual would be just as capable and productive as with a four year degree.

I think that Cam is pointing to a major problem here, and one not limited to engineers. In recent decades we have seen a process of professionalisation in many occupations. Training periods have got longer across the board.

There is nothing wrong with this per se. However, it is now creating problems in terms of supply and expectations.

Longer training periods make professions less responsive to changes in demand, while changing expectations may make people less willing to undertake more mundane tasks that formed the original core of the work. Those tasks still have to be done, so a new para-professional group is born.

A particular problem arises where the process effectively creates a new silo. One side effect can be to lock that group into past knowledge, reducing its capacity to move in new directions.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

End Month Review - August 2007

Welcome to visitor 10,000 who sneaked in while my attention was elsewhere. But then, that's the way this month has been.

Because of work pressures, July postings were irregular. This was quickly reflected in a decline in blog traffic. So I started August with a determination to do better. However, work pressures again quickly intervened.

To provide discipline, I adopted the practice of reserving posts, starting them on the due date even if I could not finish them at that time. This meant that the posts would finally appear with the right date, even if the real publication date was somewhat later.

This may be somewhat annoying to the reader, but it has imposed a discipline on me. So to that extent it has worked.

While posts over the last two months have addressed a range of issues, the core unifying theme has been ways of improving management. Drawing from my own experience as both manager and consultant, my aim has been to provide simple how to do guidance.

I am not sure that I have been fully successful. It's hard to know how much stuff is used once launched into the ether, but there have been a small number of readers with multiple page views. This suggests some interest.

September is also likely to be a messy month. As I write this, I have three part completed September posts yet to be published. But I do seem to be catching up!